Secretary of State Rex Tillerson. (Jonathan Ernst/AP)
Columnist

Almost since President Trump took office there had been strange goings-on at the State Department.

Every so often, from the vacant desks in the building where some sort of vague and ill-administered reorganization was supposed to be occurring, you would hear a sound, almost as if someone had tried to speak. Or a plane would take off and land in another country, even though no one would seem to be on it and journalists weren’t allowed to follow where it went. Or some papers would rustle on a desk and then fall to the floor.

Someone would whisper the names of people they would like to appoint to a position, but then nothing would come of it, and they would scatter again on the wind.

The figure of a former oil executive was sometimes spotted sitting at a desk or glimpsed briefly at international summits, and then a chill would pass over all those gathered there.

No one could say for certain what the figure’s voice sounded like. He would sometimes appear in concert with other international figures, and would seem for a moment or two to have said something, but a tweet or two from the president later, we would realize that he had not said anything at all.

He was sometimes glimpsed in the State Department, but he never manifested to anyone who worked there. (This was back when there still was a State Department, though even then it was embarrassing that we had hired thousands of people to learn all kinds of information about countries and places all over the world, to spend years building relationships and to conduct diplomacy, when in fact you could do it all much better by tweeting from the gut, and we are better off without it.)

Everyone disagreed about the nature of this ghost. Some said he was supposed to be the secretary of state, but in the past secretaries of state had always been visible and they had been able to speak, and the only words from this strange apparition were something unprintable followed by “moron,” directed at the president of the United States. Others said this figure was in league with Defense Secretary Jim Mattis and Treasury Secretary Steven Mnuchin. What it wanted was unclear, and why it haunted this place, with which it seemed to have no affinity whatsoever, was never adequately explained.

The specter possessed no discernible expertise or desire to acquire any, nor any tangible form. (Expertise — how would I describe it? I guess I would call it “this annoying quality that makes people insist they know better about something than someone who has given no thought to the subject at all, ever, until just now but who has, like, a feeling about it.” Expertise sometimes caused people to say, “No, that is an idiot idea, a bad idea, the idea of a goofy child, you should go home and be ashamed of yourself for even suggesting such a thing, you absolute cretin,” instead of “Yes, what a good idea, sir,” and thus it has fallen out of favor.)

The figure remained a mystery until Tuesday morning, when he was identified and cast out. His name, it turns out, was Rex Tillerson, and in a former life he was an executive at ExxonMobil. He can now go off to a mild and pleasant land (Texas), and a man named Mike Pompeo who is, so far, visible and audible (it is the things he says that are sometimes frightening) will take his place. We will see if the State Department continues to disappear into the mist like Brigadoon or if it, too, will slowly become visible again. It is too early to say.

And all of this has happened since only this morning. I am 8,000 years old.